Latin America Should Consider Legalizing Drugs, United Nations Official Says

By Paul Fuhr 05/31/18

The head of a UN economic commission for Latin America says "illegality is killing people."

United Nations official Alicia Bárcena
United Nations official Alicia Bárcena Photo via YouTube

A United Nations official argued that Latin American should seriously consider legalizing drugs in order to save lives, Newsweek reported. Alicia Bárcena, the head of a UN economic commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, says that the region needs to take a fresh look at the impact of the drug trade.

Especially in Mexico, thousands of people die annually in connection to narcotics. In fact, 2017 was the worst year yet for drug-related murders.

According to Time, Mexico had nearly 30,000 murders last year (the Interior Department reported 29,168 homicides), which is “more than 2011 at the peak of Mexico’s drug cartel-stoked violence.”

What’s worse is that Mexico’s death toll is the highest ever since the government began keeping homicide records in 1997.

Bárcena says the time has come to overhaul Latin America’s drug strategy: “I’m going to be very provocative,” she acknowledged at a forum in Paris. “Who would drug legalization be good for? Latin America and the Caribbean, for God’s sake. Because the illegality is what’s killing people,” she said. 

Peru, Bolivia and Colombia are among the world’s top producers of coca leaves, which are used to make cocaine. Mexico is the primary hub through which cocaine is smuggled from those South American countries to the United States. (The U.S. is among the world’s largest markets for cocaine.)

Cocaine, however, isn’t the only drug that’s spurred the record number of murders throughout Latin America: the precipitous rise of Mexico’s crystal meth and heroin markets in recent years is also to blame. U.S. News & World Report observed that those drugs have hugely disrupted drug trafficking in Latin America.

“Cartel fragmentation is a big part of the story of why violence is increasing,” said Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican federal intelligence official. “This has really accelerated in the last couple of years. It's the changing nature of the game.”

Given the complicated attitudes toward drug legalization in the world, especially with the United States’ increasingly relaxed stance on marijuana, there are many who believe Bárcena’s proposal isn’t so much controversial as it is forward-thinking.

As Bradley Tusk wrote in a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed, Mexicans are dying over drugs that aren’t even intended for Mexican consumers. Tusk, a former deputy governor of Illinois, considered what the landscape would look like if the Mexican government decided to throw up its hands and say the U.S. could deal with drug problems at its border.

“Almost immediately, many of the problems plaguing Mexico start to diminish. If there’s no attempted enforcement of drug laws, there’s no more opportunity for corruption. Who are you going to bribe when drugs are already legal?” Tusk asked. “And if there’s no attempt to stop the movement of drugs—if it can be done openly and freely—there’s no need for most of the violence consuming cities like Juarez.”

While cartels would still initially be at war with one another, he conceded, that too would drop off. “When bloodshed and violence is no longer necessary, it’s also no longer seen as an appropriate cost of doing business,” he said.

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.